Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Jesus' Occupation: Was Jesus a Carpenter?

Jesus was a carpenter, right?  It’s one of the most widely known “facts” about Jesus’ life prior to his ministry.  In many ways, it is the only “fact” we know about Jesus’ life before his baptism by John the Baptist. 

Surprisingly, no text of the New Testament tells us that Jesus was a carpenter.

In only one Gospel is there any hint as to what Jesus’ occupation was prior to the start of his ministry.  This comes from the Gospel of Mark, where he notes that Jesus was a tekton – that is, a builder or craftsman.  In the Greek version of the Old Testament, this same word (tekton) is used to translate the Hebrew word charash, which means the same thing – artisan, craftsman, engraver, etc.

The only other time the word tekton appears in the New Testament is in the Gospel of Matthew, where the writer tells us that Jesus was the son of a tekton.  Perhaps Matthew was implying that Jesus followed in his father’s footsteps, but in any case, the only explicit reference in the New Testament comes from Mark.

Tekton, as stated above, is a word meaning “builder” or “craftsman.”  Literally, it means “someone who creates.”  It certainly can refer to something like a carpenter – that is, a woodworker.  But, like our own word “builder,” it does not exclusively refer to the profession of carpentry.  Unfortunately, there is no context in Mark’s passage (or Matthew’s, for that matter) to imply exactly what sort of tekton Jesus was. 

The tradition that tekton, in the Gospels, referred specifically to carpentry seems to be an early one.  Justin Martyr, writing in the mid-2nd century (only about 80 years after the first Gospel), states that Jesus was a carpenter who built yokes and plows like his father before him.  Justin tells us that Jesus used his woodworking trade to teach “the symbols of righteousness” to his followers and to encourage them to be productive. 

Sometime later, around 200 C.E., another Church father – this time the prolific writer Origen – denies that Jesus was a carpenter and notes explicitly that the Gospels do not, in fact, tell us this widely known “fact” (clearly Origen understood that “tekton” was not a specific reference to carpentry). 

We are left them with a problem: the word used in the New Testament is vague, and the debate about what, exactly, this word referred to is as old as Christianity itself.  How can we possibly hope to clear up the confusion?  Our only option is to look at other available evidence, both textual and historical, and when we do, it seems likely that Jesus was not, in fact, a carpenter.

One of the ways that scholars attempt to better understand the so-called “lost years” of Jesus’ life is by looking at the content of his parables.  What sorts of things did Jesus talk about?  What images and metaphors did he like to use in teaching?  In his parables, we never find references to anything having to do with woodworking – nothing about boat building, for instance, or fashioning plows or yokes (as per Justin Martyr), etc.  What we do find there, however, are parables about stone-working – consider, for instance, the parable of the foolish builders, where Jesus brings up the image of a man digging into solid ground to build a firm (i.e. “stone”) foundation for his house; or consider when Jesus quotes a passage from the Old Testament dealing with “the stone the builders rejected” and how it would become “the cornerstone.”  Think also of when Jesus nicknamed his closest companion, Simon.  Simon did not become “the Hammer.”  No, he became “the Rock” – the foundation on which Jesus’ movement would be built.   

In fact, Jesus brings up images of stone-working quite frequently in his sayings.  The parable of the wise and foolish builders, in particular, seems to imply a fairly intimate understanding of stone building practices in general. 

In addition to these clues, consider also the historical context.  It is known that there was very little in Galilee during Jesus’ lifetime that was made of wood.  Wood, in fact, was a scarce commodity in 1st century Galilee.  Houses, for instance, were made of stone or mud-brick, typically with thatched roofs.  Carpentry would not have been a very common trade.  Masonry, on the other hand, would have been a major industry, employing hundreds, if not thousands, throughout Jesus’ homeland. 

During the “lost years” of Jesus’ life, the major Galilean town of Sepphoris was rebuilt.  Sepphoris had been destroyed in the wake of the death of Herod the Great, and his successor, Herod Antipas, wanted to rebuild it to honor his Roman overlords.  Sepphoris, as it happens, was about 4 miles away from Nazareth – literally a new, shining white city on the hill visible from the valley in which the village of Nazareth set.  If Jesus and his family members had anything at all to do with the building industry, it is a virtual certainty that they would have spent a significant amount of time working in Sepphoris.  The buildings in Sepphoris were not made of wood.  They were made of stone.

Might Jesus have lain these stones inside a ritual Jewish bathing pool in Sepphoris?
It's not outside the realm of possibilities.

Considering these textual and historical clues, it seems probable that Jesus was, in fact, someone who worked with stone rather than wood.  Given his background and the historical context, it is likely that he was simply a laborer who helped haul stones and put them in place, rather than actually carving the stones himself.  He was probably not, in other words, an actual stone mason.  Of course, we can never know for certain.  But then again, we can rarely know anything in ancient history “for certain.”  The best we can do is collect evidence and piece together the resulting puzzle.  And in this case, the puzzle puts a rock in the hands of Jesus, not a hammer and nails.  


Anonymous said...

Fascinating. Thank you.

Scott said...

Thanks for reading and leaving a comment! Glad you enjoyed it.

Anonymous said...

eThanks for the information. I have always heard that Jesus was a carpenter but as you explain it, he most likely was not a carpenter as we think of to day. I assume that because the Bible states that his father was a carpenter they figure he was also.
Thanks again.

Scott said...

Glad you enjoyed the post. Thanks for leaving a comment!

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed the article very much and I too believe that Jesus was more likely to have been a builder or craftsman of wood or stone. The Greek evidence and Jesus' own literary references seem to support this. I find some fascination in the fact that much of what mainline Christianity believes is not strictly true. For instance, there are the nails driven through His hands on the cross. Forensic evidence says that His body could not have been adequately supported that way. There is much to support the idea that the nails were through His wrists. I know that the Greek word for hand also includes the wrist. Interesting huh? I am all for a closer look at the original texts in order to get a clearer picture of our Lord and Savior.

Scott said...

Thanks for reading. Glad you enjoyed the post. I too have always been fascinated by the disconnect between what many Christians believe and what the bible actually says.

James said...

In my opinion, there doesn't appear to be any internal evidence to support Jesus being anything more than a tekton. If we had nothing else, reading into the parables and making educated assumptions would be an acceptable approach; however, we do have something else. The statement of Justin Martyr. He claims he built yokes like his father. There's no reason to believe this isn't true. Martyr is only 80 years removed and someone who builds yokes would be a tekton.

Fun subject.

Scott said...

Thanks for commenting James. I noted the reference of Justin in the blog. Rather than 80 years, however, Justin is dated around 120 years after Jesus' death (in his writings, he specifically notes that Jesus was born 150 years earlier).

I'm not convinced by Justin's testimony, primarily for two reasons.

First of all, Origen, writing just 50 years after Justin, feels no compulsion to believe what Justin says, and explicitly contradicts Justin by saying Jesus was not a carpenter. Origen was an historian and scholar, whereas Justin was primarily an apologist (i.e., a theologian). I'm more inclined to trust Origen's research and methods.

Secondly, being 120 years removed from the life of Jesus and probably 90 or more years removed from the life of any of his apostles, I don't see any overwhelming reason to assume Justin is relaying accurate information.

Would you be inclined to trust a purely oral tradition that dated back to the time of the Civil War?

In fact, the very fact that Justin's account is quite detailed (specifically mentioning yokes) speaks to me of legend (legendary accounts tend to be more detailed than historical ones).

Also, there is an obvious theological motivation behind Justin's words. Justin explicitly states that by making ploughs and yokes, Jesus was "teaching the symbols of righteousness and hard work."

I'm not accusing Justin of making things up. I'm suggesting that Justin has learned an oral tradition that undoubtedly formed from the use of "tekton" in the Gospels, and probably began life as part of a homily on Jesus's occupation. After all, that's exactly how Justin relays the information.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous wrote:
"Forensic evidence says that His body could not have been adequately supported that way."

This isn't really true. Yes, it's true that some have SAID this, but when their work is examined, it's found to be nothing but assumptions.

In fact, dozens, perhaps hundreds of people are crucified every year in the Philippines, in a ritual practiced by Roman Catholics there. They are literally crucified, and the nails are driven through their hands (modern English meaning) & feet. They remain there as long as they can, which is, in some cases, longer than Jesus remained on the cross.

So, the argument that "forensic evidence proves" is rather like saying, "scientific evidence proves that heavier-than-air machines cannot fly."

Yet, they do.

That said, yes, it's quite possible that the nails were through his wrists. The language allows for that. We simply don't know one way or another.

Scott said...

Thanks for the comment, anonymous. You make good points.

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